Fractus Returns

When I was at LCC doing my MA in Screenwriting one of our tutors had us do an exercise where she brought in various images and we used them as writing prompts. It was surprising just how helpful a visual could be in generating ideas.

After our talk with Ana, Simon created this image of a fractal rising up out of a desert. It reminded me of our trip to Normandy and seeing the half submerged land-bridges on the beach. These rusting structures that were remnants of a by-gone era. This fractal in the desert image got me thinking and I started to create a story around this.

Our new story:

Fractus is a Sci-Fi VR narrative adventure game, set on a “planet” made of fractals, hidden in the far-reaches of an isolated galaxy. In this coming-of-age story you take on the role of orphaned MELODY (15), who must save the life of an eternal being FRACTUS, the only parent you’ve ever known and what you believe to be your only hope of survival. As you solve puzzles and engage with the world, you’ll unlock the hidden truth of Melody’s strange existence.

Pivot(al) Conversations Part 3

Yesterday Simon and I met with Ana Tudor who is the Head of MA VR. It was a really brilliantly helpful meeting, and another one of those important conversations which once again made us rethink the direction we’ve been exploring.

We showed Ana the visuals through this video capture:

And also some of the very rough story development on Twine (this link must be copy & pasted to work): file:///Users/larabarbier/Dropbox/Fractus/Story/Scripts/A.L.I.A.S_draft1.html

Her biggest piece of feedback was that although she liked exploring the concept of A.I by using live actors, this isn’t something that UAL could do in an exhibition space, and that it would be difficult for us to produce in the way we wanted to. She recommended we refocus back on the Fractals and use a voice over to tell the story.

My big take away from this is that I think I’m very interested in location-based VR, and the inter-play between actors and VR technology and that this is something I should continue to explore, but that it’s not possible for this project!

For Simon, I think his concern now is that we’re running low on time and we are going into a third story phase.

My gut feeling is that we possibly don’t need a narrative for this project – at least not in a traditional sense. The fractals are interesting in themselves. I wonder how it might be if we just allow our users to manipulate them along with some very lovely ambient sound. Do we need voices?

However, Simon does really want this narrative element, and it’s been one of the major challenges in our project to find it.

So…it’s my job now is to come up with a story that uses the fractals, still explores our relationship to AI in an interesting way and offers a different interaction other than speaking. Back to the drawing board…

Pivot(al) Conversations Part 2

One of my LCC Screenwriting lecturer’s once said to me that often as a screenwriter you won’t be clear on what your theme is until several drafts in to a script. However, she also said that you’ll find that no matter how much you think you’re writing a unique story each time, writers often have one or two themes they spend their whole lives writing about, and you can see it crop up in their work time and time again.

It makes sense to me – part of why I think many of us do creative work is about trying to understand ourselves and the human condition. For some artists their themes may always be about abandonment, others about injustice and so forth. I think it goes to the heart of what your own “character wound” is – what is that key event or maybe several events that created that deep dark point in your soul that you’re constantly trying to unravel. The question you shout out to the universe, and keep searching for an answer to which you somehow believe will heal that existential crises in you.

So when Avril asked us the other week – what is the story you want to tell? I was at first a bit of a rabbit caught in the headlights. It wasn’t until after that conversation that I sat down to think about my work and what I tend to write about and what interests me at a subconscious level. Once I’d had time to reflect I found that the kind of themes that crop up time and again in my own work are often about death and loss. I tend to focus on human stories, on the intimate reality of the everyday in the extraordinary, to be fascinated by how others live and love and die. Part of why I became a writer was so I could live 1000 lives (plus time travel)!

For Simon, his interests tend lean more to science fiction and he enjoys in-depth world building, in particular explorations of alien “other” like Ian M. Banks “Culture.” He isn’t scared of the future – but believes that technology and machines will save us from ourselves, as such his art work and stories often tend to lean towards these areas. His fascination with creating 3D fractals is a huge motif that has been driving this project: He loves strange and alien worlds, and the 3D fractal landscapes he’s producing are a wonderful reflection of this.

Copyright: KnowYourMeme

But as we’ve continued to talk through August and September about “what we’re trying to say,” it has felt really difficult at times to hit on what the right mix that reflects both of us – how to marry a “human” story to such an alien visual.

Finally Simon proposed that a good “repeating” theme to explore exactly this juxtaposition between us was maybe “humans being replaced by machines.” It’s a very topical subject, and so we began to think about how we could create a story in VR exploring this.

One of the other ideas we had was tying voices into the Fractal movements. We then started to ask ourselves, could an interaction be that our VR user “speaks” into our fractal world and that’s affects the fractal movement? What would voice/fractal integration look like? What if our Fractal landscape answered back? What would it say?

This also lead to a conversation around the difficulty of having a “silent protagonist” in VR, where you are both extremely intimate and embedded in the world, and yet the primary interaction you would anticipate having (conversation) is still not yet technologically possible.

So then we asked ourselves…could we use VR and an actor to allow for this kind of interaction? Ambitious yes, but something we felt we wanted to explore. After all, this is what this residency is about – exploring the possibilities of storytelling in VR.

And so, to this idea:

A.L.I.A.S – Artificial Lifeform (AL) – Intelligence Articulation System

Theme: Humans replaced by technology, 

Concept: Over centuries humans have been replaced by machines and technology. eventually we will replace humans with digital versions of themselves. But what happens when the digital version is replaced for an upgrade? 

Players find themselves inside the I.A.S, conversing with an Artificial Lifeform (played by a live actor, hidden from view) nicknamed AL, and must answer a series of questions to prove their worth, otherwise you will be deleted for your upgrade. 

Some considerations we’re already mulling – how to ensure this isn’t just a “machines bad/humans good” paradime. To include justifiable arguments from AL as to why humans were replaced in the first place. Some of which will involve offering historical context i.e Gutenberg Printing Press democratised reading by replacing the creation of books from being a hand craft by a few to mass produced by a machine. Another consideration is the environmental impact of humans. Finally this also touches on ideas around phenomenology – a huge research topic to dig into.

I’m already slightly nervous about how to structure/ write a template for what will essentially be a live improvised performance, but I’m curious to have ago and see how I get on…

Pivot(al) Conversations Part 1

Over the weekend Simon and I had our first mentoring meeting with Avril Furness.

For me, it was really great to have a conversation with someone who is intimate with writing and storytelling in 360 degrees. It was a crucial chance to be able to air some of my concerns and struggles with finding a compelling narrative that would work with our broad theme of repeating patterns in history, linking this diaspora of voices and the abstract Fractal imagery and technology that Simon is working on.

What are you trying to say?

One thing became clear quite quickly – that Avril wasn’t just a brilliant 360 Director, but had extensive experience with being a creative director. She was quick to triage where I was coming unstuck – that our theme was just WAY too large and ambitious, and that we needed to simplify things down and focus on one simple idea to pursue.

We bounced some possibilities around over the conversation, but her advice was for us to step back from the fractals and fractal theme, and just do some concept work and blue sky thinking, and just see what stories we wanted to tell.

She also suggested we take some time out to look around at many different kinds of art and look for inspiration to see what really got us excited – which is something I’ve heard before, and I’ve used in the past, but frankly you do need a reminder when your eyeballs deep in your own project.

What are others doing with Fractals?

Avril also suggested we explore how others have used Fractals to illustrate a point or tell stories, and found some great examples.

What is already possible/being done with fractals in VR and 3D?

The top video “Like in a dream” was a huge inspiration for Simon from the start with our project and pursuing this Fractal imagery. But it was great to see where others had been forging ahead in the VR and 3D world with fractals:

How and why are fractals important? 

So, I added this as it’s something that I’ve sort of been digging into on the side anyway as part of this project. It probably deserves it’s only post at some point, so for now I’ll just pop this video Avril shared, here which is a nice summary for those curious about the story of fractals:

Introducing: Fractus

Starting a new project is a surprisingly similar feeling to standing in your snorkeling gear on the edge of a boat, looking down at the blue-green ocean and wondering what delights and what terrors lie beneath those glorious waves.

At least, that’s the feeling I got when I entered London College of Communication last week to take part in their Induction Day for their 2019 Graduate Residency.

IMG_2989

Lara and Simon snorkelling between two tectonic plates in Iceland

The LCC 2019 Graduate Residency will support six residents for a year while they explore the theme of “The Space Between.” My residency project is Fractus, a VR experience that explores repetition in the human condition through the lens of a fractal landscape.

Of course I’m not embarking on this project by myself, I’ll be working with my husband and long-time creative collaborator, Simon Ashbery. Having a collaborator can be both a boon and a challenge, and I look forward to seeing how we navigate the year ahead together.

The first part of our induction day was a chance to meet the other residents alongside helpful workshop on project planning, and in true nautical theme, Simon and I created this visual time line for the year ahead (we do have a proper one too)!

The second part of our day was a chance to present our projects to each other and the wider community (I have to say I was totally blown away by everyone’s proposals), and so here is our introduction to Fractus in blogform:

What does “Fractus” mean?

The word Fractus is Latin meaning “to break or fragment,” it is also the latin root of the word for “Fractal.”

A fractal is a set which is self-similar; fractals are repetitive in shape, but not in size. In other words, no matter how much you magnify a fractal, it will always look the same.

Both of these concepts are at the heart of our project.

What is our aim?

Fractus means “broken,” speaking to peers today, many people use the word “broken” to describe how they feel about society, about politics, even about family – but by creating an immersive VR installation which can place the viewer amongst those conversations across time, culture and space, we hope to show that society isn’t broken – that we have more that unites us than divides us – if we just take the time to listen.

Our desire for Fractus is to frame the conversations we have with each other here and now in a greater context. To help us understand that our thoughts and our actions have repercussions both negative and positive on all those who will come after us just as those who came before have influenced us now.

How will we do this?

If we took an average pub, coffee shop or street corner in 2019 and jumped back 50, 100 or 1000 years, the set dressing may change but the conversations would remain. An angry woman rants about foreigners, a man talks passionately about the future his child will inherit, a young group argues back and forth about the rights and privilege of the rich and the powerful.

We will place you as a voyeur through time and space. Self leading your exploration of these interactions and navigating the space between, through fractal imagery with a powerful auditory soundscape.

Why do we want to do this?

We want Fractus to be about hope as much as it is a warning. It’s easy to feel at times, that we live in a singular age. That the tumult in the world is utterly unique to us. But these ideas, emotions and actions have repeated time and again through history. By exploring this repetition these “fractals” in time, we want to find the hope in their resolution and the warnings in their fallout.

VR is uniquely able to build an empathic experience through its immersion of the viewer. Through that empathy, we hope to empower ourselves to make a difference; through stories we wish to understand where the touching points are in the space between past, present and future, through experience we wish to find action and through action, we wish to find hope.

What inspires us?

We have drawn inspiration from many places. VR invites viewers into a space where they can explore and uncover the story on their own terms. As such we are drawing inspiration from immersive experiences like Punchdrunk and Gone Home which uses that immersion to tell a story that is unique to each viewer.

This is also a chance to explore VR as a storyteller – how best to tell a non-linear story? How do you tell stories when viewers have almost unlimited agency to control their environment and view compared with “traditional” mediums like TV and film?

Visually it’s important that we create an engaging experience that is also feasible for us to produce. That Dragon, Cancer is a great example of how minimalist characters can be used to tell a very strong emotive story. Likewise Penrose Studios uses their production to design to mix the fanciful with grounded themes.

The visual motif of the fractals is central to the experience and this is just an example of how that might be rendered in 3D:

Finally, VR is such a new medium, we’re just looking forward to the opportunity to explore how the viewer interacts with the visuals themselves and what that means for the story.

Engagement

We’d love to work with LCC students directly, where it’s feasible with their time constraints and where it would help them. We’d also be keen to get feedback as we iterate throughout; we don’t want to create this in isolation.

We also want to hear from the students and what the world looks like to them, how events are affecting them; it’s important their voices are heard.

Ultimately, our end goal is to create a portable VR installation which would allow people from various communities to access our experience so they can engage and explore these ideas. Future plans would be to release a digital version to allow even wider global engagement.

Follow Lara and Simon to keep up-to-date with Fractus.